A Warkworth woman, who was making a video call to her mother in Tonga while the islands were being battered by a volcanic eruption and tsunami, was left with an agonising wait for news of her family.
When Laite Fine saw news on social media that an eruption and tsunami had struck, she made the call to check on her family late on Saturday afternoon, January 15.
She managed to make contact but discovered that it was dark in the village of Ahau, on the main island of Tongatapu, where her family lives, even though it was only around 5.30pm.
Power had been cut and her mother was obliged to find a torch so that her daughter could see her on her mobile phone. Her mother Ofa Tautuiaki told her that what sounded like heavy rainfall was actually ash falling from the volcano.
Ofa was worried for Laite’s father who had gone out to buy petrol in a bid to transport family members to safety.
He had left about half-an-hour earlier, without taking his cell phone, and should have quickly returned.
Ofa said she could hear the erupting volcano and it sounded like shooting – “bang, bang, bang”. Also, people were running around outside urging residents to get away.
Laite encouraged her mother to stay calm, suggesting her father was still likely to be on his way home.
It was then that Laite was abruptly cut off as Tonga’s communications systems collapsed. Laite was left not knowing the fate of her missing father Sila or the rest of her family for days.
She says she initially understood that a satellite station for international calls to Tonga was close to the volcano and out of action. Parts and tools to repair it would need to come from Papua New Guinea, which could take two weeks.
But later she learned via Tongan media in New Zealand that the Digicel mobile phone network had been partially restored just days after the disaster, and Laite’s mother happened to have a Digicel phone. She was told reception was poor, but it was worth a try.
That led Laite to embark on a phone marathon that saw her trying to place a call every time she had a spare moment, day and night, over several days, but each time she got a busy signal.
She estimates she would have attempted hundreds of calls in a bid to get news.
“I kept asking God, please I need to hear from Dad. I need to hear what’s happening,” Laite says.
Contact was eventually made by Laite’s sister, who also lives in New Zealand. The line was bad and the conversation quickly cut short. But her sister was able to tell Laite that their family was safe and that it was her “missing” father who had answered the call.
A few days later, Laite was also able to call Tonga and speak to her nephew, who explained that when her father had failed to buy petrol in Ahau, he had attempted to get it at a neighbouring village, also without success, which explained his delay in getting home.
Laite’s father returned to his family’s house concluding that the darkness and congested roads made escape impossible anyway.
Sila is a church pastor and said to his family, “Let’s just stay here and pray.”
Laite believes that hers may have been the only family who remained in Ahau.
The village is bordered by coastline on two sides and the tsunami struck the village on both of them, washing away several homes. Other homes were buried by material spewing from the volcano and subsequently collapsed. But Laite’s parents’ home remained largely unscathed, and she has heard of no deaths in the village.
Laite has since learned that her other relatives on the islands of Ha’apai are also safe.
“I was asking God’s protection on all of them the whole time, and my prayer has been answered,” she says.